Bilingual Education Programme

Country Profile: Thailand


66,790,000 (2012)

Official Language


Poverty (Population living on less than US$2 per day)


Total Expenditure on Education as % of GNP


Primary School Net Enrolment/Attendance

94 (2000–2007)

Total Youth Literacy Rate (15–24 years)

98% (2000–2006)

Adult Literacy Rate (15 years and over, 2000–2006)

Female: 92%
Male: 96%
Total: 94%


Programme Overview

Programme TitleBilingual Education Programme (BEP)
Implementing OrganizationOffice of Non-formal and Informal Education (ONIE)
Language of Instructionbilingual (Thai and Karen)
Programme PartnersUNESCO Bangkok and SIL International
Date of Inception2003

Background and context


Thailand has made impressive strides in providing educational opportunities to its citizens. The State provides free and compulsory education to all persons below the age of 14 or up to grade 12. Consequently, in addition to achieving primary school net enrolment/attendance and completion rates of 94% and 86%, respectively (2000–2007), the country has also achieved a near-universal literacy rate for adults (94%) and youth (98%). However, research indicates that ethnic minority groups such as the Pwo Karen people have hardly benefited from these educational developments. Indeed, studies suggest that because of poverty and language constraints (Thai is the official language of instruction in schools), school completion rates are lower among non-Thai speaking students. Because of the high school dropout rates, illiteracy is generally more prevalent among ethnic minorities.

The Pwo Karen people are among the most socially deprived and marginalised groups in Thailand, with limited access to basic socioeconomic services such as health and education. A disproportionate majority of them still depend on subsistence agriculture and have limited contact with the outside world. Like other children from ethnic minority groups, school performance and retention rates among Pwo Karen students are generally lower primarily because of the language barrier. Against this backdrop, the Office of Non-formal and Informal Education (ONIE), formerly Office of Non-Formal Education Commission (ONFEC)), in partnership with UNESCO and SIL International initiated the Bilingual Education Programme (BEP) in 2001 in an effort to ameliorate the challenges faced by Pwo Karen to access and complete their education.

The Bilingual Education Programme (BEP)

The BEP was initiated in Thailand following the participation of ONFEC officials at the UNESCO-organised Regional Workshop on Functional Literacy for Indigenous Peoples (26 November–01 December 2001). ONFEC’s principal motivation in adapting the concept of targeted literacy programmes for marginalised groups, was to improve school attendance/enrolment and completion rates among Pwo Karen children through bilingual educational instruction. The programme is currently being implemented in Omkoi district – Chiang Mai province.

Aims and objectives

The programme aims to:

Programme implementation: Approaches and methodologies

The design/development and implementation of the BEP involved the active participation of many stakeholders: the Pwo Karen communities; ONFEC and Community Learning Centre (CLC) officials, teachers, academics, students and SIL International.

Before the BEP was piloted, ONFEC with technical support from SIL International conducted a series of community-based consultative workshops and qualitative research in order to study the Pwo Karen language (linguistic analysis) and establish people’s learning needs and challenges. Afterwards, programme partners developed a contextually relevant curriculum, teaching-learning materials and most importantly, a Thai script-based orthography (alphabetical chart) for the Pwo Karen language which had only existed in oral form.

Writers’ workshops were also organised to produce teaching-learning materials in Pwo Karen language. To date, various forms of written materials have been produced in Pwo Karen language including:

Finally, bilingual Pwo Karen and Thai-speaking teachers or facilitators were recruited and trained in non-formal education principles and bilingual teaching-learning methods. The programme established and maintained a low teacher to class ratio in order to enable teachers to effectively attend to individual children’s distinctive learning needs.

Teaching-learning approaches and methods

The programme employs a bilingual approach to classroom instruction. As such, classes from pre-school up to grade 6 are conducted in the local Pwo Karen language in order to enhance children’s capacity to master basic literacy skills and, afterwards (from grade 7), to comprehend class instruction in both the local and Thai language.


Teachers are encouraged to use participatory and child-centred teaching-learning methods such as games, debates, story-telling, and key words in order to develop literacy skills and other life skills among students. Within this context, emphasis is placed on stories and primers. The former involves the use of whole texts (e.g. stories from ‘big books’) to emphasise literacy skills to be learned. The primers, on the other hand, base learning around individual sounds of the language and the letters of the alphabet, improving the learners’ decoding skills.

Project impact and challenges


The BEP has positively empowered Pwo Karen communities. Apart from the active involvement of many members of the community in the planning and implementation of the programme, over 200 children have directly participated in and benefited from the BEP. The programme has enabled Pwo Karen-speaking children to easily and effectively master basic literacy concepts and skills in their mother-tongue and, ultimately, to make an easy transition to the national Thai language-based educational system. Indeed, many beneficiaries noted that learning in their mother-tongue gave them a better understanding of how Thai words are constructed.


Through the BEP, a culturally relevant curriculum which addresses the specific needs of the communities, as well as the written form of the Pwo Karen language has been developed. Similarly, appropriate learning materials were also produced and widely distributed within the local communities. These strategies to literacy development have greatly motivated parents to send their children to school not only because education is now reflective of their distinctive needs and aspirations but also because their cultural heritage, integrity and identity is being preserved and transmitted to the next generation within a learning context. Furthermore, the BEP has also empowered and improved young people’s awareness and appreciation of their cultural inheritance and identity.

In addition, the use of a bilingual approach to educational instruction also facilitates the integration of the Pwo Karen communities into the mainstream or majority Thai society by dismantling the language barriers that separates peoples. The social integration of the Pwo Karen into the mainstream society could enhance the long-term developmental prospects of their communities.


Perhaps the major challenge is that the bilingual approach to education is new to the country and as such, many officials lack experience of how to implement the programme efficiently and effectively. Furthermore, most of the literacy programmes currently use the curriculum and guidelines designed for majority language (Thai) learners and despite efforts to adapt the curriculum and teaching-learning approaches to suit the needs of ethnic minorities, the bilingual approach is rarely used in practice.


The programme has strong support from the State (Ministry of Education) and plans are underway to compile and develop a Pwo Karen-Thai dictionary as well as to set up village libraries that would also serve as cultural centres.

Lessons learned



Dr. Suchin Petcharugsa
Northern Regional Institute for Non-Formal and Informal Education
Ministry of Education
Amphur Muang, Lampang 52100

Tel: +66 54 22 48 62
Fax: +66 54 22 11 27

Email: suchin_p (at)

Last update: 5 February 2012